Philosophy Friday: Virtuals, Physicals and Natural Resource Professionals

Way back when TSW (or then, NCFP) was started, while I was still working for the Forest Service, I wrote this post “talking across the concrete-abstract divide”. I used for examples of abstract thinking Charles Wilkinson and Martin Nie, both law profs(even thought Wilkinson was on the “Committee of Scientists” for NFMA, which I never really understood).  You can still see the 1997 report here. See, as a concrete thinker, I would have thought it should have been called the “Committee of Almost Entirely Scientists” or the “Committee of People We Think Are Really Smart and Knowledgeable.” I tend to seek clarity, comprehensibility, and words that mean what they say in plain English, at each step along the policy path.

I’ve mentioned before that our Regional Forester, Rick Cables, plus a noted, experienced, and thoughtful forest planner (currently working so not to be named) and I had a bit of a project in which we would go to visit law school profs and students and talk about policy issues, in order to develop more joint understanding.  This was where I first really interacted with individuals across the divide. I found those discussions to be of such richness that I thought “it’s too bad we can’t let students across the country hear this!” So Martin Nie and I started NCFP to talk about planning as the 2012 Rule was developed.

Listening to the webinar from the UC Boulder Law School last week, as well as our discussion this week of what the Park Service mission statement means, reminded me a bit of that post.  Here’s an excerpt (remember, this was written in 2010 discussing what would be in the 2012 Rule):

Second, the idea of ecological sustainability being pre-eminent never appealed to me. Strictly pragmatically, I thought we can’t always make the most protective decisions (like fencing all the people out of the Angeles National Forest if they have too many environmental impacts). But talking to Professor Wilkinson, he meant it in a visionary, right-brained way, as a goal which people could figure out through collaborative efforts and reinvent their interpretation through time and with learning. My original thought was “ecological sustainability” was an analytical idea, and the problem was that you could do all kinds of analyses of everything and never prove something was sustainable.

Something like forest planning, and planning rules involve people from a wide array of backgrounds with different meanings for the same words. That is why it is so important to have conversations with others across different views, including the concrete/abstract divide.

So I’ve thought about this for some time. Certainly abstractions may be linked with privilege, as who will determine how the abstractions are interpreted when they finally reach the dirt level of real forest practices, for example? I’ve also thought that perhaps the dichotomy had other dimensions as well. Perhaps some flavor of classism, for example. I ran across this piece recently, which I thought opened up a different way of thinking about it. The post is written by someone named N.S. Lyons (apparently a pen name for someone in DC) and you have to look through some of the political stuff to find the juicy parts.

To simplify, let’s first identify and categorize two classes of people in society, who we could say tend to navigate and interact with the world in fundamentally different ways.

The first is a class that has been a part of human civilization for a really long time. These are the people who work primarily in the real, physical world. Maybe they work directly with their hands, like a carpenter, or a mechanic, or a farmer. Or maybe they are only a step away: they own or manage a business where they organize and direct employees who work with their hands, and buy or sell or move things around in the real world. Like a transport logistics company, maybe. This class necessarily works in a physical location, or they own or operate physical assets that are central to their trade.

The second class is different. It is, relatively speaking, a new civilizational innovation (at least in numbering more than a handful of people). This group is the “thinking classes” Lasch was writing about above. They don’t interact much with the physical world directly; they are handlers of knowledge. They work with information, which might be digital or analog, numerical or narrative. But in all cases it exists at a level of abstraction from the real world. Manipulation and distribution of this information can influence the real world, but only through informational chains that pass directives to agents that can themselves act in the physical world – a bit like a software program that sends commands to a robot arm on an assembly line. To facilitate this, they build and manage abstract institutions and systems of organizational communication as a means of control. Individuals in this class usually occupy middle links in these informational chains, in which neither the inputs nor outputs of their role has any direct relationship with or impact on the physical world. They are informational middlemen. This class can therefore do their job almost entirely from a laptop, by email or a virtual Zoom meeting, and has recently realized they don’t even need to be sitting in an office cubicle while they do it.

For our purposes here, let’s call these two classes the Physicals and the Virtuals, respectively.

When considering the causes and character of the current protest, and the response to it, I would say the divide between Physicals and Virtuals is by far the most relevant frame of analysis available. In fact I’d say this is among the most significant divides in all of Western politics today.

And this excerpt reminds me of the current fad of calling “information you disagree with” “misinformation”; even a bit of the current hubbub around Twitter:

But have a little sympathy for them: they do this not just because it is cynically convenient (though it is), but because this is literally the only way they know how to navigate and influence the world. The post-modern fish swims in a narrative sea, and their first reaction is always to try to control it (through what the CCP calls “discourse power”) because at heart they well and truly believe in the idea of the “social construction of reality,” as Lasch pointed out in the quote at top. If there is no fixed, objective truth, only power, then the mind’s will rules the world. Facts can be reframed as needed to create the story that best produces the correct results for Progress (this is why you will find journalists are now professionally obsessed with “storytelling” rather than reporting facts).

If you read the comments, you’ll find that many agree that the concept is useful, but they also says that people don’t fit as neatly into one or the other as the author describes. They’re pretty civil, though, so it’s an interesting discussion.

But what strikes me about this is that many folks in the natural resource professions have the skills and experience to understand both worlds. Which is difficult, but also important and necessary for the betterment of our society. After all, rural and urban, Virtuals and Physicals, red and blue, lawyers and fire crews, academics and practitioners, all of us..need to live together more or less harmoniously.

1 thought on “Philosophy Friday: Virtuals, Physicals and Natural Resource Professionals”

  1. I’d put it a little differently than Wilkinson did based on my experience with the 2012 Rule development. Desired conditions were expected to be the focus of forest planning in a way that allowed people to collaboratively define them. Ecological sustainability was to be a science-based analytical construct that would put NFMA-based legal limits on what those desired conditions could be (subsequently defined in terms of the “natural range of variation”). That “interpretation” of limits could (along with the desired conditions) then be “reinvent(ed) through time and with learning” (new science).


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